In the afternoon of our seventh day in the Wildlands we could finally see the townwall of Cerus in the distance. The town was set into a mountain and had only one wall that closed the open front, with natural stone walls surrounding the rest of it. Right in the middle of that one wall was the only gate leading in and out of town. The view felt very familiar, since the wall looked practically identical to the ones around Alarna.
“That’s Cerus, right?” Riala said with sparkling eyes. Walking through nature might’ve been nice, but seeing signs of civilizations still had all of us excited.
“That’s right,” I said with a smile.
We walked on in the direction of the gate, while I kept glancing around us and towards the walls. Based on the information Berla had given us and the amount of time we had spent on the road without seeing anyone else, it was highly unlikely that anybody could have gotten here before us, but I still wanted to be careful. I had not been able to spot anything suspicious so far, however. Berla looked around as well, but apparently wasn’t seeing anything either.
“So far so good,” I said.
Going to Cerus wasn’t without risk, but between the three of us we had used up most of our rations and blue stones by this point. Even if we wanted to, without water we wouldn’t be able to make it to another town, the next one apparently being a few days to the south from here.
The biggest wildcard was Berla, but I was fairly sure we were good on that front. We were getting along well with her and she was apparently talking with Miles every night after I fell asleep. He had been entirely against taking her with us, but even he was coming around, saying that she was most likely on our side. It was also clear that she really liked Riala, and would hopefully not want to see the young girl dead or as a research subject.
As we got closer, I could see two guards standing on either side of the gate. Another similarity, I thought. Guards would not leave the walls in groups smaller than four. They also noticed us by this point and one walked over to the center of the road to receive us. Curiously, the closer we got, the more flustered the guards seemed, which put me on edge.
“Do they see us as beasts after all?” I whispered to Berla, but she shook her head.
“I don’t think so, you two haven’t felt like beasts to me ever since you’ve been using that new script.”
When we were just three meters away from the guard that had stepped forward, my eyes widened in surprise when he saluted us.
“Welcome! It’s not every day we see a Ruler from Alarna here. If you don't mind my asking, are you okay?”
... Ruler? I thought and briefly looked at Berla questioningly before clearing my throat and giving the explanation that we had decided on beforehand. “We were attacked by beasts on our way here. Nobody else made it...” I said with a sad expression.
“I’m very sorry to hear that. You have my condolences. Unfortunately we didn’t expect the caravan from Alarna for another week, and we certainly didn’t expect royal visitors. You will have to give us a few hours to prepare accommodations,” the guard said.
Him thinking that we were part of the caravan was within expectations, since this road only led to Alarna, but him treating us like royalty hadn’t been part of the plan. This is... great, isn’t it?
“‘That’s quite alright,’” I said at Miles’ instruction. “‘If you could just point us in the direction of the inn, we will be on our way. We would not want to cause you good people more trouble than necessary.’”
“Much obliged, sir. I’d be glad to assist you once the matter of the entrance fee has been cleared.”
There is an entrance fee? I thought in surprise.
“Will all three of you be entering Cerus today?” he asked and glanced over at Berla’s missing leg.
“That’s right,” I said, trying not to show my confusion.
“Very well, that will be three hundert Kira, please.”
Three... hundred!? I tried to not look too shocked at the amount, but I did end up staring and blinking at the guard for several seconds before Miles got me out of it.
“‘Of course,’” we said and I shuffled through the contents of my bag in search of the one stack of money we had taken from that one house in Alarna. It had just laid there, in a drawer with blue stones. I had had reservations about stealing money at all, and only wanted to take a couple of bills. Just enough to buy some more blue stones. However, Miles had insisted that we take what we can, so we would be prepared. If he hadn’t convinced me we wouldn’t have nearly enough to get into town...
After handing almost half of our money to the guard he quickly counted it, nodded, and then stepped aside, motioning us forward. “Welcome to Cerus, I wish you a pleasant stay. If you wish to arrange an escort back home, please talk to the captain at the guard station,” he said.
As soon as I thanked him he shouted “GATE,” and, as if by itself, the large doors slowly swung inwards and we could see down the town’s main street for the first time. We had finally made it.
Cerus was somehow both similar to Alarna and also very different. A long road appeared to lead towards a main square in the distance, while side streets branched off from it in regular intervals. Unlike our hometown, however, the streets weren’t winding and instead dead straight, as if they had been planned in advance. The houses were also different, most of them being much simpler. Many had only two stories at the most and almost all of them were built simply from wood.
Another unique aspect was that shops seemed to line the entire main street, whereas these were all concentrated in the market district in Alarna. The only residences I could see were well down the side streets.
Quite a few people were up and about, though the main street wasn’t nearly as busy as Alarna’s. We slowly made our way in the direction of the main square, where the inn was supposed to be, while taking in the unfamiliar town. I haven’t seen this many people since we were paraded through town... I thought. And they’re staring at us as well...
Relieved that they at least weren’t looking at us in contempt or fear, I turned towards Berla to ask her about what had happened at the gate. “Why didn’t you tell us about the entrance fee? That caught me completely off-guard! We were lucky I had some money with me,” I whispered.
However, she looked just as surprised as I was. “I didn’t know either! I only ever came here as part of the caravan, maybe the leader would pay the fee for everyone?”
“And what was up with that ‘Ruler’ thing...?”
“That I’ve told you about! About you feeling kind of like Rulers with that script, remember?”
“I didn’t think you meant that literally!” I said in exasperation, but all she did was stare at me with a neutral expression before shrugging.
“Whatever,” I said with a laugh. “We’re inside, that’s all that matters.”
After about ten minutes we arrived at the main square. What we hadn’t seen while walking up the main street, due to buildings blocking the view, was that almost the entire square was filled with people and market stalls on the left and right, leaving only a path in the middle that ran up to a large, multi-story building on the other side of the square.
“Wow... There are way more stalls than in the market district of Alarna,” I said in surprise.
As we walked across the main square I looked in wonder at all the stalls around. Food, materials, blue stones, tools, clothes, daily necessities; you could essentially get whatever you wanted without walking more than a couple of meters. Berla explained that merchants from four neighboring towns would regularly gather here.
“The market takes place during the last week of the month. And on the last day, the caravan from Alarna arrives to do its business. There will be even more people then.”
I had read that Cerus was a merchant town and a trading hub, but actually seeing it in person was something else. At my side I could feel Riala constantly pull at my arm in an attempt to walk off to look at something that caught her eye, but I had grabbed her hand well in advance to prevent that.
Curiously, I could see a lot of people who didn’t seem like merchants to me, but at this time of day I couldn’t imagine all of them being citizens of Cerus either. Berla quickly solved that mystery for me as well.
“It’s kind of nice, isn’t it? Other towns will even let normal citizens come,” she said.
“Why isn’t Alarna like this?” I asked her in confusion. I had never realized this before, but now that I thought about it, the whole town was kind of like a prison. Citizens weren’t allowed to come and go as they pleased, and guards also wouldn’t let outsiders in without a permit. The authorities essentially dictated what every single one of our days would look like. It appeared to be different for these people.
“Don’t get the wrong impression. Alarna is far superior to the other towns,” she said, admonishingly. “It’s by far the safest and most prosperous one. You might be thinking the Wildlands aren’t such a big deal after the last couple of days, but you haven’t seen anything truly terrifying yet...”
“Like what...?” I asked.
“What lies beyond category five...”
“I have to admit, Lera, you did good,” Captain Bern said, while glancing at the gate of Cerus in the distance from behind a tree. “Who would’ve thought that they would actually come here and get in?”
“It was a reasonable assumption,” Lera said. “There are only so many routes to take when you rely on blue stones as much as they do. And they wouldn’t walk right up to the gate if they hadn’t solved their problem.”
The two captains started moving deeper into the forest, where their platoons were waiting. The soldiers had left for Alarna three days ago, but had fought their way here on almost no sleep within two days. Since then, they had been lying in wait for the fugitives to arrive. Under normal circumstances, the two groups would’ve met on the road, but after Berla had joined Tomar and Riala, their movement speed had been impacted negatively for a day.
When Lera and Bern arrived at the clearing where their soldiers were waiting, they immediately started giving orders to coordinate with the other platoons and get into position.
“I still believe we should’ve included Cerus’ authorities in our plans,” Bern said.
“You don’t know Mayor Cerus, Bern. If we had asked for his help with catching our fugitives, he would’ve done everything in his power to get them before us and then sell them to us for a horrendous sum. That old bastard is as greedy as they come. This plan is solid. They’re trapped inside a town with just one way out, but they will feel safe and secure when they fall into a bed tonight, for the first time in a week. And they surely won’t use their more deadly powers in a densely populated town either. All we have to do is take a squad inside and get them. It’s an ideal situation.”
“Except that Berla is with them,” Bern mused.
“Granted, that wasn’t part of the plan, but she won’t be an obstacle in her state. To think that the king’s niece would throw in with criminals, however... Her mother will be devastated.”
“She should be happy to be rid of the black sheep of the family,” Bern said.
“Let’s not get into that now,” Lera said before calling a guard over. “Jara!”
“Yes, sir?” Jara said with a salute after jogging over to the two captains.
“We’re leaving for town in three hours, prepare your squad. We will end it tonight.”